We are in the midst of a decades-long revolution that centers on the use of information technology to create virtuous cycles of continuous innovation. Numerous industries (music, advertising, travel) have already been transformed, and others (movies, finance, space) are in the early stages of reinvention. Entrepreneurs are challenging existing business models in many ways--new products, new forms of marketing, new kinds of relationships with customers. However, sometimes a company's disruptive mojo is something as simple as getting its products to market a lot faster.

If there's any field that cries out for a dose of computer-enhanced modernization, it's the auto industry. Today's cars are more convenient, safer, and greener than they've ever been, but compared to the electronic gadgets that consumers are becoming accustomed to, even luxury vehicles always seem to be a decade behind the times. (The unloved process of buying a car also seems like a relic from an earlier century.)

Enter Tesla, a company with its roots firmly in the digital soil of Silicon Valley. Elon Musk was the creator of PayPal, and his co-founders Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard were veterans of the VC world who had created several high-tech companies. They made it their mission to build "not just the best electric cars, but the best cars," and incorporating the latest computing technology was a big part of this. Tesla's vehicles run on a unified computer architecture, as opposed to the hodgepodge of separate systems found in legacy vehicles. Its over-the-air updates enable the company to fix problems, and even add new features, remotely.

Tesla's internet-era ethos can be seen not only in its vehicles, but in its approach to product development. It has dispensed with model years, and adds improvements to its vehicles whenever they're ready (or even earlier, some would say), as software providers do. Operating on a timescale far faster than anything Detroit ever dreamed of, the company has thrown the auto industry into catch-up mode.

For years, the automotive product cycle, from the time a new vehicle was conceived to the time it showed up at dealerships, was expected to be about 10 years (nowadays, it's probably more like five). The tech world has quite a different concept of time. As Tarpenning told me, when Tesla developed the Roadster, "We were behind the schedule and it took us a lot longer than we thought, but from the car people's perspective, it was instantaneous."

However, now that Tesla is making the transition to larger-scale production, it may be running up against the limits of the speedy Silicon Valley strategy. There's one big difference between software and cars: the latter include huge hunks of metal, which need to be assembled by large and complex machines, in the physical realm, and this takes time, regardless of the efficiency of your software. The auto industry is also heavily regulated--every new vehicle must be tested and certified by an alphabet soup of government agencies, which are not known for their promptness.

In its quest to speed up the production process--"the machine that makes the machine"--Tesla has invested heavily in robotics. However, the company tried to automate too much, too quickly, and instead of speeding things up, it caused the Model 3 assembly line to bog down, as Musk admitted in a recent interview with CBS News. Automation isn't a new story in the auto industry--it turns out that, way back in the 1970s and 1980s, both Toyota and GM got burned by recklessly plunging into automation. In this case, Tesla might have done better to slow down a little and concede that there are important lessons to be learned from the big boys.

Despite the missteps, there's no question that Tesla's fast footwork gives it an edge (just don't call it a moat) over would-be competitors. Every time a legacy automaker announces a new electric model, the media hails it as a "Tesla-killer." But even the most optimistic forecasts have these new EVs hitting the market at least two or three years in the future, by which time Tesla will have moved on again.

Published on: May 16, 2018